It seems like yesterday when I started writing this monthly column, but this will be my third holiday column. I guess time plays tricks on the mind. Two years ago in December, I wrote about opera’s most generous moments and last year, opera’s most grateful moments. This month I continue the tradition and discuss three operatic moments that highlight a theme of the season. This year, with war and financial crisis still in the news, the topic is peace.
Sometimes, it is easy to feel irrelevant or powerless as a musician when world events seem to be propelling the human race and the planet toward ever-greater peril. I like what Leonard Bernstein had to say on the subject: “This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.” To put your energy toward creating beauty as musicians do is in itself an act of peacemaking. So for the first operatic moment, I choose the prelude to Wagner’s Das Rheingold.
These four-plus minutes of beautiful music welcome and invite the listener into the world of the opera and indeed, the entire cycle. When I listen to this prelude, famous for intoning the same chord for 136 measures, my normal sense of time and place seems to erode. Inner struggles and wars with myself are silenced, and just like a child who settles in for a bedtime story, I relax. I enter the timeless space of music, myth, and theater. The world feels magical and beautiful, and in the arms of a great storyteller I feel at peace.
The music is an invitation to sit back, relax, and let the music take you on a journey. This prelude is quintessentially the musical reply to violence that Bernstein speaks of.
For a second peaceful moment, I choose “Torna la pace al core” from Idomeneo, by Mozart. In this final aria, King Idomeneo relinquishes his throne, giving power to his son, Idamante. The finales of Mozart’s operas often end in someone giving up a previously held power, either peacefully (the Count in “Figaro”) or less so (Don Giovanni). In Idomeneo, the gods mandate the king’s actions. First, they demand that he sacrifice the first man he sets eyes on, who happens to be his son. Then they decree that he give up his throne to him instead. He saves his son’s life and makes himself right with the gods. He tenderly sings “Torna la pace al core, Torna lo spento ardore; Fiorisce in me l’età. Tal la stagion di Flora l’albero annoso infiora, nuovo vigor gli dà.” [Peace returns to my heart and extinguished ardor is rekindled; youth is reborn in me. Thus does Flora’s season make the old tree bloom again and give it fresh vigor.]
The king’s kindness also reminds me of the finale of Rossini’s La Cenerentola and is touching for the same reason. When the person in a position of power and potential harm chooses to do the right thing rather than being forced to do so, it brings peace to the heart.
Finally, I choose “Mein Sehnen, mein Wähnen” from Korngold’s Die tote Stadt. Also known as “Pierrot’s Tanzlied,” this piece is one of two famous arias from the opera. (The other is Mariette’s Lied.)
This baritone aria has one of the most meltingly beautiful melodies in all of opera. We hear the strains of the waltz in the orchestra, offstage voices echo the past, and memories are relived. But the character—a clown—recognizes it as an illusion and seems to understand, even as he laments it, that clinging to dreams of the past takes you away from any happiness in the present. He sings: “Mein Sehnen, mein Wähnen, es träumt sich zurück.” (My yearning, my obsession, they take me back in dreams.)
The beauty and sadness of this aria seem to be the opera’s strongest advocates for letting go of the past. This story revels in the dream world of the main character, Paul, who is caught in his obsession for his past love. But in the end, he agrees to leave the past, “Die tote Stadt” (the Dead City), in favor of life.
Maybe somewhere in your life you can, like Idomeneo, let go of control and find more peace this holiday season. Maybe, with Das Rheingold or some other favorite piece, you can find some peace in the act of listening or making music. Lastly, taking a page from the late film composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold, memories of the past can be particularly strong at holiday time. If you are one of those who are experiencing your first holiday without a loved one who has passed, or your first divorced holiday, or your first holiday away from home, remember to take some time away from the hustle and bustle to sit down with some beautiful music. Experience the joy it can bring you right now. This season, let us turn our ears, our voices, and our hearts towards peace.